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The Ladies of Grace Adieu

This collection of eight short stories by Susanna Clarke reads in much the same vein as her novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which one might expect, since all but one of the stories are set in that world. The odd one out, called The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse, is part of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust universe, but has the same dry, Victorian flavor as her other work.

I love her casual references to the established mythos of their parallel culture, and the removed scholarly commentator tone. The story of the Charcoal Burner–alluded to in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell–of the frailer side of John Uskglass, the Raven king, is my particular favorite. You may read an excerpt on her site.

A huge fixture in the world is magic, especially fairie magic. Her treatment of the magic and apparent madness of fairies is subtle, and made me think hard.  Faeries are capricious, and, by our rationalist measure, mad, in the same imaginitive way children are mad.  A child’s reasoning is insane, by adult standards, and we recognize any adult truly thinking like a child to be sick.  Fairies treat inanimate objects like people, because to them, and in their system of magic, objects are the same as people; as she says, “the distinction is quite unintelligible.” So, they’re not crazy; they actually have a universe which answers to different laws.

She illustrates the fairies’ seemingly mad perception in one of her brilliant footnote asides by telling the story of a faerie assassin who tried to use a pistol and some shot, instead of magic, to kill a fairie prince, the Old Man of the White Tower. He failed, was captured, and imprisoned. The pistol and the shot were also imprisoned, each in a separate cell. After a few centuries, the would-be assassin died in prison.  But, she continues,

[t]he pistol and the shot, on the other hand, are still [imprisoned], still considered by the Old Man as equally culpable, still deserving punishment for their wickedness. Several other fairies who wished to kill the Old Man of the White Tower have begun by devising elaborate plans to steal the pistol and the shot, which have attained a strange significance in the minds of the Old Man’s enemies. It is well known to fairies that metal, stone and wood have stubborn natures; the gun and shot were set upon killing the Old Man in 1697 and it is quite inconceivable to the fairy mind that they could have wavered in the intervening centuries.

Taken in entirety, the book reads as an apocryphal addition to JS&N.  I enjoyed Tom Brightwind and John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner the most, Mrs Mabb the least, but the whole collection was a pleasant read, and I very much enjoyed this return to the world of JS&N. Her prose is a constant pleasure, and the elliptical way she treats the subject matter always leaves me wanting another story.

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